40 Years Ago Today: Television Debuted at CBGB on the Bowery
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Those of us who’ve been marking punk’s 40th anniversary this month – a contentious dating scheme, I know – pin our claims on a show that happened 40 years ago today, when the band Television played its first set at CBGB + OMFUG, the club that occupied 315 Bowery from the end of 1973 to 2006. Prior to renaming his bar as CBGB in December 1973, the club’s owner, a 43-year-old ex-marine named Hilly Kristal, had operated under the name Hilly’s on the Bowery, to distinguish the space from other venues he had owned elsewhere in the Village.
CBGB + OMFUG stood for “Country, Bluegrass, Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers,” and in its early days he really did want it to be a country bar, but Hilly’s primary clientele in the early ’70s was as uneven as the neighborhood’s reputation. In addition to some stray drag performers from the Bouwerie Lane across the street, he’d poured drinks mostly for members of the Hell’s Angels, whose HQ was nearby, and residents of the Palace and other adjacent flophouses. “I ran it for a while as a derelict bar,” Kristal later told the journalist Roman Kozak, “and bums would be lining up at eight in the morning, when I opened the doors.”
Though the neighborhood had supported upperclass slummers of one sort or another since the middle of the last century, there was nothing mainstream about its appeal. Drivers locked doors when bums offered to wash windows at intersections: in his 1973 novel Great Jones Street, about a Dylanesque rock star who holes up downtown to escape his celebrity status, Don DeLillo describes the Bowery as full of these “wild men with rags.” Invariably, early press on CBGB stressed the club’s undesirable location. It was a district even cab-drivers avoided, stripped-out cars on the sidestreets and trash-can fires on corners at night. Then again, the kids who came to CB’s by and large came on foot. “Anybody who passed 315 Bowery after ten o’clock in the evening risked getting a knife in the back,” Hilly’s ex-wife Karen remembered about the early days, but the danger lent street cred to a self-consciously underground movement.
Although Hilly had run Times listings using the name CBGB as early as the summer of ’73, journalists have traditionally followed his lead in dating the name-change to December of that year. In March he hung a new awning out front and planned a Grand Reopening. Tradition holds that while he was hanging that awning, members of Television stopped by and asked him about the place. In March 1974, Television had played its first show, at a mid-town theater, and was looking for venues downtown. The band consisted of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd on guitars, Richard Hell on bass, and Billy Ficca on drums. Some combination of these guys – the details change depending on whom you ask – convinced Hilly that they were capable of playing country, bluegrass, or blues, or at least that they could bring friends to buy beer.
CBGB’s re-opening night, Wednesday the 20th, featured ridiculously cheap drink specials, followed by three nights of the Con-Fullam Band, a bluegrass act from Maine, but the next week he advertised three nights of Elly Greenberg’s country blues over a smaller, innocuous listing for Sunday: “ROCK Concert TELEVISION March 31.” Another ad for the first show, paid for by Television’s manager, foregrounds a photo of the band and also lists the “fancy guitar pickin’s” of Erik Frandsen.
An inauspicious start for punk to be sure. No one called it that yet, of course. All the band members knew was that they wanted to play stripped-down rock and roll, essentials, not the bloated corporate rock or virtuoso prog garbage you got on the radio. They sounded more akin to earlier New York underground bands, the Velvet Underground or New York Dolls, but they were decidedly not glitter, either. Richard Hell, who came up with the band’s earliest image, wanted them to look like street kids, like Bowery Boys. They wore oversized thrift suits with torn shirts, sometimes held together with safety pins. They cut their hair short, rejecting glitter and hippies alike. They wanted to blend in with the bums on the street. A few years later, Malcolm McLaren, who had briefly hoped to take the band to London, gave up and created his own band there instead. The Sex Pistols’ look was directly lifted from Hell’s template for Television.
Television’s first Sunday shows at CBGB may or may not have attracted enough patrons to allow Hilly to make money from the bar, but they did lead to a confluence of interests and talents that would shape the local scene. Friends from the downtown film and lit circles, Warhol scenesters from Max’s Kansas City near Union Square, drag queens from the Bouwerie Lane made up the early crowd. The group’s biggest payoff came on the third Sunday of their residency, when Hell succeeded in getting his friends Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye to drop by and see his new band. Smith and Kaye were currently trying to get a band of their own off the ground, and Patti already enjoyed some celebrity as a rock poetess and critic. She wrote some of the band’s most influential early press, helping to cement its mythology.
Television fit right into a narrative Smith had already been crafting in her rock criticism. Like John the Baptist wandering through the wilderness, she had both prophesied and searched the stars for signs of revolution. In the March 1973 issue of Creem, Smith called for a “dirtier,” more “old school” form of rock than she saw around her; she thought it might be “coming down and we got to be alert to feel it happening. something new and totally ecstatic.” Television seemed to fit the bill.
Smith’s sense of pending revolt may have been influenced by the New York Dolls, but she seemed less than satisfied with glitter’s vaudeville groove. “I really felt that was it, what I was hoping for,” she later said of her first time hearing Television: “To see people approach things in a different way with a street ethic but also their full mental faculties.” To this day she narrates the moment as portentous: “Tom Verlaine had definitely read [Rimbaud’s] A Season in Hell,” she writes in her 2010 memoir Just Kids. “As the band played on you could hear the whack of the pool cue hitting the balls, the saluki [Hilly’s dog] barking, bottles clinking, the sounds of a scene emerging. Though no one knew it, the stars were aligning, the angels were calling.”
If you ask the angels, they might just tell you those were the earliest nights of rock’s third revolution.
-Written by Bryan Waterman, who teaches literature at NYU and NYU Abu Dhabi and is the author of the volume on Television’s Marquee Moon in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series. Find him on Twitter at @_waterman.